December 19, 2013


Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (arr. Shumway); Holst: The Planets (excerpts) (arr. Anderson); Anderson/Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre. The 5 Browns. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Gheorghe Costinescu: Theme and Variations; Sonata for the Piano; Evolving Cycle of Two-Part Modal Inventions for Piano; Essay in Sound. Stephen Gosling, piano. Ravello. $14.99.

Stephen Scott and the Bowed Piano Ensemble: Ice & Fire. Navona. $16.99.

Kirk O’Riordan: Chamber Music. Ravello. $14.99.

Roger Bourland: Four Quartets of Songs & Arias. Juliana Gondek, soprano; William Lumpkin, piano. Navona. $16.99.

As Long as There Are Songs. Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; Craig Terry, piano. Innova. $14.99.

     “Oh, the thinks you can think,” wrote Dr. Seuss. Had the good doctor been near a piano at the time, he might have added, “And the things you can do once you think of them!” The piano is so versatile – even to the point of being two forms of instrument at the same time, percussion and strings – that its possibilities in traditional and non-traditional use are nearly endless. Take the fascinating CD by the 5 Browns (Deondra, Desirae, Greg, Melody and Ryan), for example. There is no reason whatsoever to arrange Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for five, count them, five pianos – except that the arrangement makes possible huge gouts of sound and all sorts of intriguing effects among the instruments, creating a genuine sonic spectacular that is absolutely not Stravinsky but at the same time absolutely is. Stravinsky was a highly innovative thinker – The Rite of Spring itself is evidence of that – and might well have been intrigued by this decidedly odd but truly fascinating approach to his ballet. Who knows? What listeners will know is that the arrangement by Jeffrey Shumway is highly intriguing and is exceptionally well-played – providing a variety of new sonic insights into the music, whether or not they are ones that Stravinsky intended. A curiosity, yes, but a truly fascinating one. The three movements from Holst’s The Planets (Mars, Neptune and Jupiter) are somewhat less successful: the pounding rhythms of Mars are marvelous and the jocularity of Jupiter only a bit less so, but the mysticism of Neptune falls short of evanescence in this arrangement. This movement is clearly placed between the other two as a sort-of intermezzo in a sort-of suite from what is already a suite; but in that position, it loses its intended climactic role and merely sounds pale. Not so the Danse Macabre, though, aptly described as a “Bacchanal for Five Pianos,” which bounds and bounces all over the place and frequently sounds genuinely devilish as well as truly danceable. Both the Holst and the Saint-Saëns are very ably arranged by Greg Anderson of the piano duet Anderson & Roe. All in all, this is a fascinating disc from Steinway & Sons, showcasing the firm’s pianos in unexpected and thoroughly interesting ways.

     Far more straightforward but in its own way equally successful, the new Gheorghe Costinescu piano CD on Ravello takes the piano through paces that range from those of the Baroque to those that are explicitly of the 21st century. Many contemporary composers continue to look back hundreds of years for inspiration, but few have rung changes on the old forms as successfully as Costinescu does here. Theme and Variations (1956) is simply a set of 14 variations and coda on a chorale-like theme stated forthrightly at the beginning – and if the harmonies  are modern, the overall sensibility is of the Classical era. To some extent, the same may be said of Sonata for the Piano (1957; revised 2007-08), which is in traditional three-movement form and of modest 15-minute length, but which is too broad and large-boned to be deemed a sonatina: both the scale of the themes and the handling of their development show this work to be an effective Classical-style sonata, although, again, the treatment of the material is quite clearly of the 20th and 21st centuries (the work includes pronounced jazz and ragtime elements). Costinescu reaches farthest back in time for Evolving Cycle of Two-Part Modal Inventions for Piano (1964), which includes a one-part invention and six two-parters – very much in the mode of Bach, although scarcely in his harmonic style. Stephen Gosling plays all these works with strong involvement and a fine sense of their structure and the older structures on which they are built. Gosling also does a bang-up job –the adjective seems particularly appropriate – with Essay in Sound (2011), which is the most modern-sounding of all the works here. This is not necessarily a compliment: it is sound that predominates in this piece, not music in the sense in which music dominates the other three works. Listeners who become intrigued by Costinescu’s skillful adaptations of old forms to the modern era may be somewhat taken aback by his thoroughgoing modernism here – although it cannot be denied that this “essay” showcases one element of the piano quite clearly: its ability to make a great deal of percussive sound.

     It is the “strings” element of the piano that comes through in Navona’s (+++) CD of music by Stephen Scott, which showcases a Colorado College group called the Bowed Piano Ensemble that Scott founded. This is entirely experimental music, with all the pluses and minuses the term implies. The 10 ensemble members perform by opening a grand piano and bowing, plucking, striking and otherwise manipulating its strings to produce sounds ranging from almost painfully extended lines to staccato exclamations and deep, resonant bell-like tolls. There is nothing particularly new about the notion of playing the inside of a piano, although it is certainly clear why this is not a release on the Steinway & Sons label: the piano was never intended by its makers to be used this way. Nevertheless, John Cage’s “prepared piano” and other non-traditional approaches to the instrument laid the groundwork for Scott’s approach many decades ago. Scott’s music is inescapably of the moment, and it is hard to imagine it having much staying power, especially because he sometimes ties it directly to events of the day: Afternoon of a Fire (2012), for bowed piano and improvised Native American flute, is so titled because of a particular wildfire in Scott’s native Colorado. Also here are New York Drones (2006), whose title hints at its sonic landscape; Vocalise on “In a Silent Way” (2001) and “La Guitarra” (2002), both of which feature soprano Victoria Hansen; Aurora Ficta (2008), the most elaborate piece on the CD; and Baltic Sketches (1997), a set of five pieces that do have somewhat different characters but are in no way particularly “Baltic.” This is a disc for devotees of contemporary music and unusual sonorities more than for people interested in what a piano can do (or be made to do).

     One traditional use of the piano, and one still used by modern composers, is within chamber groups – and Kirk O’Riordan uses it that way as well as in a solo capacity on a (+++) Ravello CD featuring six of his works. Water Lilies (2000) and Lacrimosa (2011) are solo-piano works, both played affectingly by Holly Roadfeldt, but neither of them – despite their titles – is especially evocative of its designated subject. Sonata rapsodica (2009) for clarinet and piano, in which Roadfeldt is joined by Marianne Gythfeldt, is more interesting, its two movements both flowing freely and with frequent changes of emotional expression. Pressing Forward, Pushing Back (2005) is equally long, but in a single discursive movement. It is written for flute and piano – Ruben Councill is the flautist – and has some effective moments, although the piece as a whole never quite gels. The same may be said of Dying Light (2004), which again is about the same length but is scored for violoncello (designated that way, not as “cello”) and piano and which features cellist Lawrence Stomberg. Interestingly, it is a piece in which O’Riordan uses flute and violoncello with piano that comes across particularly well: A Strange Flower for Birds and Butterflies (2012), despite its overdone title and a sense that it is often trying too hard to be expressive, is a well-wrought work with many intriguing passages.

     Another traditional use of piano is as accompaniment for vocal cycles or individual songs. Two new (+++) releases show the piano in this role. The Roger Bourland CD on Navona showcases four quartets called Four Apart Songs, Four End Songs, Four Marian Songs and Four Xmas Songs. Bourland nicely handles traditional art-song territory, most feelingly in the Marian songs and most amusingly in the final Xmas song, “The Crocodile’s Xmas Ball.” The works are effective enough, if stylistically unexceptional, and are very well performed by Juliana Gondek and William Lumpkin. The performances by Stephanie Blythe and Craig Terry on an Innova disc are fine, too, although the territory here is popular music rather than anything approaching the classical. The 14 songs here include ones by Sammy Cahn, Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and others, dating as far back as 1919 (“Look for the Silver Lining” by Buddy DeSylva and Jerome Kern) and being as recent as 1965 (Gordon Jenkins’ “This Is All I Ask”). Blythe has a rich, resonant mezzo-soprano voice, and she handles these vocal standards well and feelingly on a disc that is particularly well-recorded but not, in the end, especially revelatory of much in the music that has not been revealed before. The piano’s role here and on the Bourland CD is clearly a subsidiary one, and that in itself is of some interest, since here is an instrument that can resound throughout the concert hall but can equally well take a back seat to a singer in a far quieter and more intimate setting. One thing you can certainly think of when it comes to the piano is versatility.

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